Winter Landscape in Black and White: Spruce Tree with Mountain

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I made this photo just a few feet from my home in Chignik Lake. The challenge was to somehow clean up the assortment of utility poles, wires, satellite dishes and the dissonant array of scrub alder closer to eye level. I actually knew as soon as this assignment (Winter Landscape in Black and White – the second weekly assignment from Outdoor Photographer magazine) was posted the scene I wanted to shoot. I put on a long lens, waited for the right light, and got this frame.

Next Thursday: Patterns of Winter

 

Ink and Light: Framed in Light and “Something like a Raven”

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Framed in Light: Umiaks and Northern Lights, Point Hope, Alaska

                   …in silence                  where all things
      and all beings reach                 back into time before iron and oil.
        dg nanouk okpik – Tulunigraq: Something like a Raven, 2012

Whaling crews of the Inupiat Eskimo village of Point Hope still hunt on the Chukchi Sea from traditional umiaks – small whaling skiffs with wooden frames and bearded seal skin hulls.

dg nanouk okpik is an Inupiaq-Inuit poet from Alaska’s North Slope. Nanouk is Polar Bear and Okpik is Cloudberry in the Inupiaq language. Her book Corpse Whale was published by the University of Arizona Press in 2012.

Winter Macro Photography: Other Worlds

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Abstract #4: Parallel Worlds – Among new projects in 2017 is a commitment to taking on the “Weekly Photo Assignment” challenge at Outdoor Photographer magazine. The first new assignment for 2017 was Winter Macro. 

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Abstract #4: Fracture – For the first time in perhaps five years, our lake, Chignik Lake, has frozen solid. The first day it was reasonably safe to walk on the ice, it was incredibly clear.

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Abstract #9: Galaxy – As I walked around scanning the bottom for fish and aquatic insects, here and there I noticed bubbles trapped in the clear ice.

Next Thursday: Winter Landscape in Black and White

Ink and Light: “For John Clare” and a Redpoll in Mongolia

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Thin Air: Common Redpoll, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Redpolls breed in Arctic regions around the world, descending into lower latitudes in winter. A bird of the North, they generally are uncommon south of Canada.

For John Clare
The whole scene is fixed your mind,
the music all present,
as though you could see
each note as well as hear it.
John Ashbery, lines from For John Clare, published in 1969

John Ashbery’s (1927-) poetry has earned nearly every major award including the Pulitzer. The subject of this poem, John Clare (1793-1864), emerged from difficult early years to write beautiful poetry about the natural world before later being institutionalized for insanity.

Cranberry Days

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Framed in a boggy, wet miniature world between yellowing willow leaves and a lime-green horsetail stalk, clusters of ripe low-bush cranberries (lingonberries) push up through densely growing crowberry plants. Chignik Lake, Alaska.

The savannah sparrows that have been passing through in small flocks are absent today. The last of their kind, they’ve joined the white-crowned, golden-crowned and fox sparrows along with the wrens and warblers that flew south back at the beginning of the month. With most of the passerines gone, the shrikes, too, will soon go, following their prey. It’s been two weeks since we’ve seen sandhill cranes and at least that long since loons were gliding across the lake. This morning following a spectacular, fiery red sunrise, the light broke almost white. Winter light.

Making my way through the village toward the trail to the berry meadow, I spot a kingfisher perched stalk-still on a dead alder along the lake. A few glaucous-winged gulls wheel and soar low over the lake, calling listlessly as others sit placidly rocking on the windblown water. In the sky overhead, a pair of ravens show off their vocals with deep, resonating qua-orks and are gone. As the trail enters the dense growth of willow, salmonberry, alder and fireweed stalks gone to cottony seed, I can’t help but notice the absence of birdsong. Not even the chickadees are out. A mile later, up in the bog, there is only wind blowing through the raggedy last of the cotton grass and bowing the sedges in undulating, yellow-green waves.

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Remains of summer: Sandhill crane footprint and raven tracks on the edge of an ephemeral pond near the berry bog.

I enter the berry meadow quietly from downwind and scan for moose and bears. There are tracks and other sign in the soft mud, but no animals. A sudden gust sprinkles my face with cold, misting drizzle.

I pull a five-cup container from my backpack and begin walking the edges of the watery meadow looking for mounds of crowberry plants. Cranberries seem to like growing among these mosslike plants. It’s not long before I find the perfect mound. Looking carefully among the needle-shaped crowberry leaves, I see the tell-tale maroon that gives away the berries I’m after. As my eyes hone in on this specific shade of red, I see more. And then lots.

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We sometimes find moose tracks at the berry bog as they come to feed on nutrient-rich sedges.

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Brown bears (grizzlies) come to the meadow looking for the same thing that draws me – an abundance of bog-loving blueberries, crowberries and cranberries. Even with the nearby river and feeder streams brimming with salmon and charr, it’s common to find piles of bear scat loaded with little but berries and berry seeds.

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Red foxes love berries too, and are frequent visitors.

Picking goes fairly quickly and by lunchtime I’ve filled two containers with perfectly ripe, agreeably tart, firm berries. These I’ll clean and add to the two-and-a-half quarts Barbra and I picked yesterday, making well over a gallon. Freezing these lingonberries will sweeten them up a bit. After that, we’ll turn them into syrup to add to our Soda Stream fizzed water and into sauces for grilled pork cutlets, roasted chicken and Thanksgiving turkey. 

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Wild geranium leaves turned orange-red add a splash of color to one quart and one cup of low-bush cranberries… No one with a stash of gold ever felt wealthier.

While picking, my mind follows its own path in and out of dialogs and dreams but I try to remain vigilant to the possibility of animals. In addition to bears, moose, foxes and an array of birds, wolves, too, occasionally travel through the meadow. Just as I top off the second container, I hear a succession of three distinctive snorts directly downwind. Something has picked up my scent. A bear? A moose? I slowly stand and look. Whatever made the noise is buried deep in alders some distance away. I probably won’t get a look, but just in case I check the settings on my camera, make sure my canister of bear spray is handy, and pack up for the mile-long walk home.

Along the trail back to Chignik Lake, crimson fireweed stalks accent the gold of autumn willows. Up on the mountains, the season’s first snow.

As I come around a bend in the trail a snipe explodes into the air, it’s back marbled in browns and streaked with white. Sunshine breaks through the September clouds and the meadow and hills and distant mountains light up. I recall a story about a boy who fell asleep, and when he woke couldn’t determine if he was still asleep and dreaming, or wide awake in a new land.

30 Minute Raspberry Jam!? Yes, Way!

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Fresh raspberry freezer jam. 30 minutes from ripe berries on a bush to yummy jam.

Chignik Lake is a magical place. Maybe I shouldn’t gleefully announce this. One of the things that make this place magical is the small population. 😉

Jack and I really enjoyed living in Mongolia. The stint there certainly scratched a life-long itch of living overseas. We enjoyed trips our to the countryside and we certainly miss our Mongolian friends. But while we were away from Alaska, we longed for the pristine forests, tundra, mountains and seascapes and outdoor activities that have forever become part of our desired reality. At the top of our list? Foraging for wild food.

Part of the magic of Chignik Bay is the blueberries, crowberries (also known as blackberries in Alaska), and cranberries that grow in wild abundance. Additionally, currants and raspberries have been planted here and are thriving. We may try to grow our own in the spring. We’ve found many mushrooms and still need to figure out which ones are edible. There will be fireweed shoots to harvest in the spring, too. Needless to say, our freezer is stocked with the Sockeye and Silver salmon we’ve caught.

After a few trips out to nearby muskeg areas (berries love this type of environment), our freezer was stocked for the coming winter. It was time to start processing some of the berries into jams, jellies, sauces and syrups. I grabbed my container of pectin and noticed a recipe for “jam in 30 minutes” – no cooking required. Freezer jam!

It turned out fantastic. Since I used perfectly ripe raspberries for my experiment, the jam looks and tastes exceptionally bright and flavorful, like the fresh fruit I used. I do like cooked jams, but this fresh jam is a quick and easy way to make something a little different than the usual. It is delicious spread on bread or spooned into yogurt or hot cereal. The jam will keep for about three weeks in the refrigerator and will keep in the freezer for about a year.

Raspberry Freezer Jam

Ingredients

  • 1 2/3 cups of cleaned, ripe raspberries
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tbsp instant pectin

Directions

  1. Stir sugar and pectin into a bowl.
  2. Mix in berries.
  3. Stir for 3 minutes.
  4. Ladle mixture into freezer safe containers, jam jars work well.

Makes 2 cups of jam.

Purple Martins: The Highest-Flying Swallow

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The Catch: Purple Martins, Kimiwan Lake Bird Walk, Alberta, Canada

Swallows are a favorite bird wherever they fly, and among them North America’s largest and most universally appreciated species is without a doubt the Purple Martin (Progne subis). Before Europeans ever came to North America, Native Americans in the South were known to hang hollow gourds as nesting boxes to attract these birds. The beneficial nature of Martins is well known: not only do they consume enormous quantities of insects that humans consider pests – among them horseflies, beetles, termites and grasshoppers -, they also aggressively drive away birds of prey as well as crows and thus were traditionally welcomed by farmers. Often soaring at altitudes of several hundred feet, Martins capture their prey exclusively on the wing; they quench their thirst on the wing as well, skimming the surface of ponds, lakes and rivers.

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Iridescent purples and gun metal blues mark the plumage of the male Martin.

Although the range of the three subspecies of Martins covers most of the U. S. and sections of southern Canada, they tend to be rather uncommon. This is due in part to their very specific nesting requirements and to the fact that invasive species – European starlings and house sparrows – frequently outcompete Martins for preferred sites. Formerly found in hollow trees, Eastern Martins have almost exclusively shifted their nests to human created housing: apartment-like complexes on poles, rows of houses side-by-side, or, particularly in the South, hollow gourds. Like Chimney Swifts and Barn Swallows, Eastern Purple Martins have become dependent upon humans for nesting sites.

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The plumage of females is lighter in color, predominated by shades of brown.

Writing in the early 1800’s, John Audubon observed the ubiquitous nature of Martin nesting boxes in America:

The… Indian is also fond of the Martin’s company. He frequently hangs up a calabash on some twig near his camp, and in this cradle the bird keeps watch, and sallies forth to drive off the Vulture that might otherwise commit depredations on the deer-skins or pieces of venison exposed to the air to be dried. The slaves in the Southern States take more pains to accommodate this favourite bird. The calabash is neatly scooped out, and attached to the flexible top of a cane, brought from the swamp, where that plant usually grows, and placed close to their huts. Almost every country tavern has a Martin box on the upper part of its sign-board; and I have observed that the handsomer the box, the better does the inn generally prove to be. 

All our cities are furnished with houses for the reception of these birds; and it is seldom that even lads bent upon mischief disturb the favoured Martin. He sweeps along the streets, here and there seizing a fly, bangs to the eaves of the houses, or peeps into them, as he poises himself in the air in front of the windows, or mounts high above the city, soaring into the clear sky, plays with the string of the child’s kite, snapping at it, as he swiftly passes, with unerring precision, or suddenly sweeps along the roofs, chasing off grimalkin, who is probably prowling in quest of his young. Birds of America, John J. Audubon, printed 1827 – 1838.

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Healthy Martin colonies indicate a healthy environment.

The next time you see a large flock of dark birds, look closely. Although often starlings, Martins, too, come together in the thousands and even hundreds of thousands, particularly in late summer as they prepare to migrate to South America.

For more information about Purple Martins, or to learn more about building a nesting complex of your own to attract them, visit www.purplemartin.org

For more information on the wonderful Kimiwan Nature Walk and Interpretive Center in McLennan, Alberta, please visit www.kimiwanbirdwalk.ca.

 

 

 

C’mere and give us a kiss

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We’ve all been there – mornings when you’re out of cigarettes and reduced to digging through an overflowing ashtray; mornings when you can’t find your Scotch glass… or the sash for your robe. Your lipstick’s smeared from the night before, your head is pounding, you can’t even look at food and you just want to know that you’re still loved. (Stone Sheep Ewe on a rainy day in Alberta, Canada)

Bull Fight on the Al-Can

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Nearly a ton each, when wood bison decide to take over a piece of the Alaska-Canada highway, they do. Shooting from the deck of our C-Dory, we found ourselves surrounded by leathery thuds of muscle smacking muscle, the crack of horn on horn, hooves pounding pavement and turf as animals the size of small trucks worked themselves into sprints, snorts, grunts, bellows and the thick odor of bison. We’d been photographing more placid scenes in a herd of about 100 animals – cows and nursing calves, young bulls, grandpa bulls and The Kings – the taut-muscled mature males that stood hands higher than the other members of the herd. Aside from a few younger males occasionally testing each other with head-butts, all was tranquil. The older bulls, hump-shouldered, muscle-ripped massive beasts, grazed peacefully along with the cows and calves or rolled in dust wallows.

The dynamics changed in the blink of an eye. A couple of the big boys started snorting at each other, then locking horns hard and kicking up dust. Suddenly every big bull in the herd, including the largest bull, was on high alert, tails held high, heads lowered as they zeroed in on the point of conflict. Kicking up grass, shrubs, sand and dust, these muscle-sculpted kings moved with impressive speed in their attacks which were aimed at bellies and buttocks as well as heads and shoulders.

Vehicles on the road cautiously edged backwards to give the sparring bison sufficient berth. The motorcyclist seen on the left side of this photo turned around and headed in the opposite direction as the fight edged closer to him.